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Dementia Dos and Don'ts

April 23, 2019

Mid-to-late stage dementia often presents challenging behavior problems. The anger, confusion, fear, paranoia and sadness that people with the disease are experiencing can result in aggressive and sometimes violent actions.

Learn more about which strategies are most effective in dementia behavior management.

 

Dealing with Dementia Behavior

Communication difficulties can be one of the most upsetting aspects of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia — and it’s frustrating for those with the disease and for loved ones.

Although it can be hard to understand why people with dementia act the way they do, the explanation is attributable to their disease and the changes it causes in the brain.

 

Familiarize yourself with some of the common situations that arise when someone has dementia, so that if your loved one says something shocking, you’ll know how to respond calmly and effectively:

 

Common Situation #1: Aggressive Actions or Speech

 

Examples: Statements such as “I don’t want to take a shower!,” “I want to go home!,” or “I don’t want to eat that!” may escalate into aggressive behavior.

 

Explanation: The most important thing to remember about verbal or physical aggression, says the Alzheimer’s Association, is that your loved one is not doing it on purpose. Aggression is usually triggered by something—often physical discomfort, environmental factors such as being in an unfamiliar situation, or even poor communication. “A lot of times aggression is coming from pure fear,” says Tresa Mariotto, Family Ambassador at Silverado Senior Living in Bellingham, WA. “People with dementia are more apt to hit, kick or bite” in response to feeling helpless or afraid.

 

Ann Napoletan, who writes for Caregivers.com, is all too familiar with this situation.

 

“As my mom’s disease progressed, so did the mood swings. She could be perfectly fine one moment, and the next she was yelling and getting physical. Often, it remained a mystery as to what prompted the outburst. For her caregivers, it was often getting dressed or bathing that provoked aggression.”

 

DO: The key to responding to aggression caused by dementia is to try to identify the cause—what is the person feeling to make them behave aggressively? Once you’ve made sure they aren’t putting themselves (or anyone else) in danger, you can try to shift the focus to something else, speaking in a calm, reassuring manner.

 

“This is where truly knowing your loved one is so important,” says Napoletan. “In my mom’s case, she didn’t like to be fussed over. If she was upset, oftentimes trying to talk to her and calm her down only served to agitate her more. Likewise, touching her—even to try and hold her hand or gently rub her arm or leg—might result in her taking a swing. The best course of action in that case was to walk away and let her have the space she needed.”

 

DON’T: “The worst thing you can do is engage in an argument or force the issue that’s creating the aggression,” Napoletan says. “Don’t try to forcibly restrain the person unless there is absolutely no choice.” Mariotto agrees: “The biggest way to stop aggressive behavior is to remove the word ‘no’ from your vocabulary.”

 

Common Situation #2: Confusion About Place or Time

 

Examples: Statements such as “I want to go home!”, “This isn’t my house.”, “When are we leaving?  “Why are we here?”

 

Explanation: Wanting to go home is one of the most common reactions for an Alzheimer’s or dementia patient living in a memory care facility. Remember that Alzheimer’s causes progressive damage to cognitive functioning, and this is what creates the confusion and memory loss.

There’s also a psychological component, says Mariotto:

“Often people are trying to go back to a place where they had more control in their lives.”

 

DO: There are a few possible ways to respond to questions that indicate your loved one is confused about where he or she is. Simple explanations along with photos and other tangible reminders can help, suggests the Alzheimer’s Association. Sometimes, however, it can be better to redirect the person, particularly in cases where you’re in the process of moving your loved one to a facility or other location.

 

“The better solution is to say as little as possible about the fact that they have all of their belongings packed and instead try to redirect them—find another activity, go for a walk, get a snack, etc.,” says Napoletan. “If they ask specific questions such as ‘When are we leaving?’ you might respond with, ‘We can’t leave until later because…’ the traffic is terrible / the forecast is calling for bad weather / it’s too late to leave tonight.”

 

“You have to figure out what’s going to make the person feel the safest,” says Mariotto, even if that ends up being “a therapeutic lie.”

 

DON’T: Lengthy explanations or reasons are not the way to go. “You can’t reason with someone who has Alzheimer’s or dementia,” says Ann. “It just can’t be done.” In fact, says Mariotto. “A lot of times we’re triggering the response that we’re getting because of the questions we’re asking.”

This was another familiar situation for Ann and her mother. “I learned this one the hard way. We went through a particularly long spell where every time I came to see my mom, she would have everything packed up ready to go—EVERYTHING! Too many times, I tried to reason with her and explain that she was home; this was her new home. Inevitably things would get progressively worse.”

 

Common Situation #3: Poor Judgment